Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Graduate students- employees, scholars, or something in between?

Graduate school has always required that students balance research, classwork, and teaching activities (perhaps with some time for complaining). Though many aspects of graduate school are unchanged, there can be a tension between grad students and their employers driven by a shift in both these groups’ expectations, and the complex nature of STEM graduate school.

This is illustrated well by the current strikes of teaching assistants (primarily graduate students) at University of Toronto and York University – both major Canadian institutions. [And even more extreme cases exist]. The union at U of T has become a defacto union for graduate student issues as well, and the primary sticking point appears to be graduate student stipends, which are far below the poverty line. The students there are striking as teaching assistants (so research work can continue) but their main issue is a holistic “graduate student” issue.

Supposing the components of graduate school have remained similar over the years, why might tension be increasing between what graduate students and faculty/departments expect? Partly because so many other things have changed-–the economy, the workforce, cultural expectations. I think that in the past, it was easier to consider graduate school as a place of passion and intellectual curiosity, where one would make a lousy salary, but consider it “worth it”.  Today, the cost-benefit analysis for getting a PhD is considerably less positive – it takes longer to get a PhD, on average, and the payoff in terms of obtaining a faculty or other job, makes this less clear. The cost of education, particularly in the US, is immense: the possibility of student loan debt from 4-8 years of postgraduate education is fairly unpalatable.

From Nature.
As the realities change, so too do the expectations. That on its own would be the source of some tension. But the dual nature of graduate school compounds the tensions since it is difficult for graduate students, faculty, and department heads to evaluate what reasonable expectations are for things such as pay, hours, vacation time. For most students, graduate school has aspects of both a clear job (usually teaching duties—running labs, marking tests and assignments, sometimes lecture duties) and a clear studentship (class work, appraisal exams, all culminating in a defense). It also includes research, done in a lab or the field, which may vary between being a job (doing tasks primarily for the PI, monitoring undergrads, ordering supplies) and an intense learning experience. Employment involves contracts with expectations and restrictions, set hours and wages; being a student lacks the same expectations but is often associated with greater freedom and personal growth. The extent to which faculty and graduate students see the position as “student” or as “job” may well differ.

The interaction of economic realities with the duality of graduate school is an important issue. Should graduate school be considered the start of one's working life? If so, is it equivalent to an entry-level position? After all, TAs do a lot of grunt work -- marking, marking, and more marking, run simple labs and tutoring sessions -- and many universities hire undergraduates to do similar tasks. On the other hand, graduate students are also high-achievers doing complicated analyses for research, and have reasonably high education levels. Graduate school may come with opportunity costs  - peers with similar educations tend to have jobs and retirement funds. In contrast, the pure academic path usually means you will live frugally for many years before your first "real" position (and you may be in your 30s or later before you get it).

There may be some generational changes as well. It is suggested that Millenials/Generation Y have different priorities than previous generations: they strongly desire fulfilment from their work, but also competitive compensation and job flexibility (e.g.). The downsides of graduate school are greater and perhaps more obvious to this generation: if it is a job, it is poorly paid and entry-level, if it is a studentship, it comes with an opportunity cost. But how to evaluate it when it is both? It is undeniably easier to go through graduate school for those who don't have to deal with the dualities - such as through having a fellowship that allows a student to do research and classes only. Most people are still in graduate school for the same reasons as they always have been - love of science and learning. That hasn't changed. But the meaning of graduate school itself may well have changed. There is no one or easy solution to the issue. But no doubt a recognition by both sides of the realities of being a graduate student (and a supervisor) and honest communication about expectations on both sides (and sometimes, perhaps a little pressure) would go far. 

The real truth about graduate school according to the Simpsons...

**I just want to note that this is inspired by--but not addressing--the U of Toronto situation, and any comments that simply want to debate specific circumstances in particular universities will be deleted...
Larger discussion of the general issue always welcome.


BenK said...

Over 15 years ago, in a similar context of TA strikes and a lengthy unionization drive aimed at the graduate students, it became clear that with the exception of certain ideologically minded humanities organizers, the graduate students were simply a cat's paw serving individual and organizational ambitions within the context of labor politics. The drive failed, foundered largely on the intransigence of the science students, but not for excessive scruple on the part of the organizers. The administration was its own bureaucratic nightmare, everyone well-intentioned and but rarely a seat of courage. Still, in seeking additional benefits from the administration, there were no mandatory dues at the end of the dark tunnel. One can only hope that the science students are not so discouraged with the greater economy to be susceptible at this time an Orwellian call.

Marc Cadotte said...

Really nice post Caroline. I think that missing from a lot of these discussions about the tension between the University and graduate student financial support is the responsibility of government. In the US and Canada, the 90s saw governments download (or wash their hands of) financial support for education. This left a lot of University struggling with debt and had to raise tuition. Ultimately, governments need to step up and support graduate education by making grad school free for highly qualified students, and provide a cost-of-living supplement.

The current financial situation leaves graduates feeling like they need to be treated like employees in order to secure the support they need (which has clear disadvantages, as you point out). Further, people all over are feeling the financial crunch of University finances -more sessional instructors, fewer tenure track positions, and now apparently de-tenuring professors so you can fire them:

Caroline Tucker said...

Hey Marc - I totally agree with everything you've added. There is a lot more that could be written on all of the associated issues too.